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Kazakhstan Commissions High-Speed Rail

Aerial view of pier at Lake Balkhash
Kazakhstan’s 1,000 km long high-speed rail line will need to cross Lake Balkhash, a 6,300 sq mi body of water that typically freezes from November to April each year. Wikimedia Commons

When complete in 2017, Kazakhstan’s two largest cities will be connected via a 1,000 km line that traverses harsh terrain and crosses one of the largest lakes in the world.

April 9, 2013—Design work has begun on a new high-speed rail line to be built Kazakhstan, linking the cities of Almaty and Astana via a 1,000 km route that will cross the Kazakh Steppe, a vast, sparsely populated region marked by strong winds and extreme temperature variations.

“The amplitude of temperatures is about 80°C. It will be a challenge, especially for power supply,” said Marion Segretain, the business development manager for SYSTRA, a transportation consultant headquartered in Paris with expertise in high-speed rail, in response to written questions from Civil Engineering online. In March SYSTRA was hired by Kazakhstan’s national railway operator, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), to design the high-speed line.

Temperatures in July have reached 42°C (108°F) in the region. The coldest temperature recorded in January is a staggering -52°C (-62°F). Those extremes in temperature must be accounted for in many aspects of the design, including snow control and foundation work.

A geotechnical analysis will provide SYSTRA with a complete understanding of the challenges that will be posed by permafrost and freeze/thaw cycles along the route. The line will also cross a large swath of desert.

“SYSTRA has been working with KTZ for several years, and had a contract for the supervision of the feasibility study for this line,” said Segretain.

That feasibility study, prepared by a Chinese company that is no longer involved in the project, focused on a dual-track system with trains reaching speeds of 350 km/h. In that configuration, the system was projected to provide services to 5 million passengers annually.

The system that KTZ will build is less ambitious, with a single 1,520 mm gauge track and trains traveling at 250 km/h. Rolling stock will be supplied by Talgo, a high-speed train manufacturer headquartered in Madrid, but with a production facility in Kazakhstan. Control systems have yet to be determined.

The new high-speed rail line will begin in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan since 1997, and the second-largest city in Kazakhstan, with a population of more than 775,000. Two stations are planned on the route: one at Karaganda, the other at Balkhash. The terminus will be at Almaty, the country’s former capital and its largest city, with a population nearing 1.5 million.

“Kazakhstan needs the line in order to get people arriving by plane in Almaty to Astana during the International Exhibition that will take place in Astana in the summer of 2017,” Segretain said. The annual trade show features international manufacturers and their goods, and is called EXPO 2017. Almaty International Airport is the busiest airport in Kazakhstan, with more than 3.6 million passengers arriving and departing in 2011. Astana International Airport, on the other hand, is much smaller and services fewer foreign carriers, so the high-speed rail line will form an important link.

The route presents a sizeable challenge for engineers, who must design a 10 km viaduct to cross Lake Balkhash, a 6,300 sq mi body of water. The massive lake is effectively divided into two sections by Sarymsek Peninsula, with portions that are freshwater and others that are saline. Portions of the lake are as much as 85 ft deep.

Crossing one of the largest continental lakes in the world in a harsh environment will be a key design challenge, Segretain said. “The main matter of concern regarding geotechnical conditions will be crossing the lake on a viaduct,” Segretain said. “We have to know how and in which material to build the piers. Another challenge will be the time left to build the viaduct according to weather conditions.” The frigid temperatures in winter create a narrow annual window for staging construction of the piers and viaduct. Typically, the lake freezes over in November and ice prevails until April. The project is scheduled for completion in spring 2017.



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